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Doing: A Powerful Force for Change

During week two of our 2015 Code for America Fellowship, the fellows and I jumped feet first into “Build Week.” The goal? Work together with our teams and build something — anything — together.

My team, Team Vallejo, sought to learn more about our city’s focus area, safety and justice, and pick a small thing to build as a hypothesis for the rest of the year.

During our research, we found an inspiring account of communities in Vallejo bonding together and taking proactive measures towards their safety and well being; a story that illustrated for me the importance of building and acting towards something you believe in.

Over a four year span, the Vallejo police force dramatically decreased from almost 160 officers in 2008 to just over 80 officers in 2012. With only one officer to care for 1,300 residents, they had to prioritize their efforts to violent crimes and 911 calls.

Vallejo Police Department bar graph 2008 compared to 2012Despite the discouraging drop in the police force, Neighborhood Watch communities surprisingly rose from under 30 groups in 2009 to almost 300 groups in 2013. During Build Week, my team and I were honored to speak with Tina E., one of the pioneers of Vallejo’s earliest Neighborhood Watch communities during this crucial time, about how she evangelized Neighborhood Watch groups around the city by taking action into her own hands.

Everyone was fed up. One neighborhood was suffering from as many as 3 burglaries in one week within a one block radius.

“People were tired of hearing about how Vallejo is dangerous, and they knew the PD didn’t have enough people,” Tina recounted.

So Tina, fed up with worrying about her safety and with a newborn on the way, decided to map the crimes in her neighborhood and post them on every neighbor’s door to raise awareness of the seriousness of the issue and the need for everyone to work together to do something about it.

“Once they started seeing the reports, and I started talking to them in person, people wanted to get involved,” Tina said.

Tina arranged meetings on her front lawn and taught visibility drills to neighbors so that when a criminal was in their midst, they would all bond together and take action to make their presence as a bonded community known. Once, her community worked together and actually caught and held a burglar until the police arrived.

Neighborhood watch groups bar graph 2009 compared to 2013Within only 18 months, Tina’s community watch group rose from only 6 people to more than 120, and that was just on her block. By 2013, there were more than 300 neighborhood watch communities active around Vallejo.

“It’s a chain reaction, it spreads like wildfire because everyone becomes a community of friends and you want to help,” Tina recounted as my teammates and I sat in awe. I realized this was a perfect example of a phrase often heard at Code for America: government for the people, by the people.

This group isn’t just a group of Neighborhood Watchers, anonymously watching and reporting crimes to the police, they are a group of Neighborhood Doers. They proactively work together to prevent crime from happening by acting and organizing together. They have created transparency and awareness about problems that need to be addressed, have organized to address that problem, and have taken creative approaches to build a safer, more connected neighborhood.

Build week was not just a week to make an app and see how we work with our teams (though we did build an app that we’ll be testing soon). It was our team’s chance to see that we too can make things work if we jump in and take action, if we do something and lead by example. Not just talk about it, not just complain about it, not just rant about how we do or do not like this or that, not just watch and report about it, but do it. Organize together, use all of the capable and intelligent humans around you and take action together to make the world how we know we deserve it to be. Get up and build a future that you can feel proud of. Create for ourselves a government by the people, for the people, that’s what this week was about.

In that brief week, I witnessed Code for America as a doing organization. Tina and her neighborhood group are a doing _community. And now my teammates, city partners, and fellow fellows are _doing teams — making things work for us and others, and realizing that the best way to get things done and create positive change isn’t by waiting and wondering, it’s by understanding the community needs, rallying a group of committed and passionate individuals towards a common goal, and iterating until it works.